Sunday, 23 September 2018

Ahmedabad - "Those Gujaratis will steal your heart with their food and their friendliness"

I can't say I wasn't warned. Before I left Delhi for Ahmedabad I was told that "those Gujaratis will steal your heart with their food and their friendliness". Well the food was fabulous and the generosity of the people astonishing. I don't think I've ever been anywhere quite like it. I was given free food in markets, drank countless cups of chai for which payment was steadfastly refused and was invited into the homes of complete strangers who saw me admiring their houses.

Ahmedabad is also a perfect city for photography especially in the  bazaars where I loved the colours of the fresh fruit and vegetables, the smell of the spices and the relaxed, unhurried attitude of the stall holders. People smiled, said hello or good morning and in some cases begin to engage me in as much conversation as we could manage given my ten words of Hindi. Chai was sent for during several of these interactions. Numerous people told me they had friends or family who had lived, worked or studied in London and one man, on hearing where I was from shouted Dewesbury, have you been to it?.  I haven't but he has.

Textile merchant Dewesbury, have you been to it?
Vendor, fruit market
Vendor, vegetable market
The narrow streets of the old city also offer rich opportunities for photography with their havelis, some of them 200 years old. Many are in poor condition, but others have been well looked after or recently restored. As I walked through the streets, admiring the buildings, people would appear at their doors, greet me and on occasion invite me inside to look around and even to take pictures. They were curious about my interest in architecture and some were happy to share their stories. Pankaj is 72 although he looks much younger. He saw me admiring his beautiful double doors and insisted on opening and closing them in various combinations to allow me to take pictures. He told me he is a Bachelor of Arts, once worked for Tata and then ran a business selling towels and bedding. Some years ago he had to give up work to look after his mother. She has now passed away and although he has siblings he lives alone. But I am happy he said.

Pankaj is a Jain as is Suraja. A petite, most charming lady she was the wife of a High Court judge. Now a widow, all of her family are overseas and she is cared for by two young women. Sitting in her living room with the main door open she noticed me looking at the building and called for me to come inside and to admire the decorative details above the internal doors. A very elegant woman, she insisted on removing her spectacles before I photographed her. This tidying oneself up before a picture is something that many older people do when a portrait is requested.

Pankaj  I am happy
Much of life is lived in the street here. Having had a career that involved the promotion of reading and literacy, the sight of someone lost in a book is something that excites and attracts me. In one of the lanes I noticed an elderly woman sitting on the floor of her open fronted shop, Gujarati novel in hand, completely engrossed in what she was reading. I was able to get quite close to her without attracting attention but the sun was merciless on that day and it was hard to be sure that I had captured the moment. The result was not perfect but the picture below gives some idea of how reading can carry us away. There is a small bookshop not far from where I saw the reader. It was closed when I passed but there were piles of books outside. There was no obvious reason for this but it was good to know that once our friend has finished her book she won't have to go far to get another one.

The reader
New stock at the book shop
Relaxing on the platform
Usha waiting for her lift
Many houses in the old city have a raised platform on which domestic tasks or business can be carried out. I saw people using them as rest areas or in some cases as a place to wait for someone to come and meet them. Usha was waiting for her motorcycle lift. I was taken by the contrasting colours of her sari against the pale green peeling paint behind her. The girls in the white uniforms are waiting for their school bus. The older woman sitting behind them saw me with my camera and called me over to photograph the group. When I explained that I am from London she became very excited and told me that a family living in her building will be visiting there very soon. 

In the streets immediately beside the Swaminarayan Temple, there are several of these platforms, some of them rising to ten or more steps above the street. One particular platform runs the length of several houses. The range of activity being carried out there included an open air tailoring business, people hanging out their laundry, a dog resting and two street vendors sitting beneath the platform. Such colour and activity generated by a simple structure.

Waiting for the school bus
A busy morning in the old city
Those platforms are not the only outstanding architectural feature of the old city. There are some spectacular doors here too. Many of them are made from Burma teak which is resistant to termite infection and has enabled the doors to last for over a century. Ahmedabad doors are so admired that    owners are occasionally persuaded to sell them, sometimes for scandalously low amounts. One story has it that a homeowner in urgent need of cash let his doors go for just 20,000 rupees or just over £200. Surely the shipping would have cost many times more than this.

Ahmedabad's architectural heritage goes back several centuries and includes a number of stepwells, once numerous across India but now disappearing. Man made structures, they descend as many as nine levels into the earth to a pool of rain water once used for drinking, washing and other day to day items. Many of them had ingenious drainage systems allowing water used for one task to be re-used for agriculture and other purposes. As well as supplying precious water, the step wells are also a cool, shaded place providing respite from the blistering sunshine of a Gujarat summer. They are also works of art with ornate stone carvings in a range of styles due to different artists being used for each part of the structure.

The late 15th century Adalj Vav is the most well known of Ahmedabad's step wells but I also enjoyed visiting the Dada Hari Vav, built in 1500 adjacent to a mosque. Descending to the lower levels of the well, I noticed a series of red coloured hand prints printed on the walls. These are the marks of young women from the area, married into families in other cities who would leave their handprint here so that their parents could come and "visit" them whenever they wanted. The Dada Hair Vav had fallen into a shocking state, used as a rubbish dump and for illicit activity until Government intervened some years ago and ensured more appropriate care and management of this important monument.

Doors to the Mehta Haveli
Entrance to a Jain temple
Dada Hari Vav
Ahmedabad is also home to some of India's most iconic 20th century architecture. The streets around Relief Road contain many fine examples of Art Deco from the 1930's and beyond. The style seems to have lasted longer here than in many other places. Many of the buildings carry their date of construction with several not being completed until the 1950's. Sadly most of them are in very poor condition whilst others have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. I have been unable to find details of the architect for most of them and it seems that much of this important built heritage may be undocumented.

On a brighter note, the works of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn have been accorded more respect and have been maintained at least reasonably well. Some of these buildings are difficult or even impossible to visit, especially the private homes. However, it is possible, by prior arrangement, to visit Kahn's magnificent Indian Institute of Management, completed in 1962. The highlight is Louis Kahn Plaza around which the library, classrooms and faculty offices are arranged. The spectacular red structure manages to combine modernity with references to the city's past, with its arches, columns and approach to providing light and shade.

It is also possible to visit Ahmedabad's Magen Abraham synagogue. Built in 1934, it was designed entirely in the Art Deco style and is the work of  Daniel Samson and Ellis Abraham Binjekar. The pink exterior has several classic deco motifs as does the interior, including sunbursts, ziggurats and speed lines.
Indian Institute of Management
Magen Avraham Synagogue
Art Deco building, Relief Road
Yusuf Patel, the New Irani Restaurant
Much as I love strolling in a city, I won't be happy unless I can find a cafe in which to retreat for a while. Thankfully the coffee chains do not seem to have arrived here. Instead there are numerous places that at first glance may seem run down, but don't be fooled, they are full of character and characters and offer good food at low prices. Yusuf Patel's family came to the city in the 1930's and in 1941 his grandfather established the New Irani Restaurant. Yusuf is the third generation to manage the business. Originally only chai was served but now snacks and meals can be had too. The building is partially open to the elements and in need of a lick of paint, but it is also atmospheric and very popular. Mr.Patel was keen to know what I thought of the chai. It was delicious. He happily posed for a picture but not before removing his glasses and straightening his clothing just as our friend Sara had done earlier.

The Chandravilas restaurant opened 120 years ago. It is famous for its thali but more so for its jelabis, freshly prepared near the entrance in full view of the street and the waiting customers. The sweet smell is irresistible and I succumbed to a small plate of them together with the obligatory cup of masala chai. Famous customers have included Mahatma Gandhi and Bollywood icon Raj Kapoor.

Preparing the jelabis, Chandravillas Restaurant
I cannot end this post without mentioning someone I met during my stay. Ramesh is a shoe shine. He works outside the Lucky Restaurant, sometimes alone and sometimes with his brother. Ahmedabad's streets are very dusty and I was happy to use his service more than once during my short stay. For a mere 20 rupees, my shoes were made to look like new. Not only that, he provides slippers for customers to wear whilst their shoes are cleaned which means you can nip into Lucky for a quick cup of chai whilst you wait. That's what I call customer service. Thank you Ramesh.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I was warned about the Gujaratis. They are indeed friendly people and their food is delicious. Ahmedabad suits me. I love its architecture, bazaars, chai stalls, cafes and most of all it's people. I have also been told that in India I must expect the unexpected. This must account for the girl who I saw tightrope walking at the side of road. Not only was she balancing on a rope, she was also carrying a series of vases on her head. I will sign off with her and with Gaurav, a stall holder in a small bazaar just outside the city and possibly possessor of the best smile in Gujarat.

Expect the unexpected
Gaurav, the best smile in Gujarat
You might also like Scenes From The City Of Joy - 2, "Pay Me In Dollars, I Want To Buy A House"
You can see more pictures of India here.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

I Have Food, Water and Clean Clothes What Else Do I Need - Muna of Delhi

To be Hijra is to be neither male nor female but to possess elements of both. In India Hijras are recognised in law as a third gender and may adopt what is widely held to be female dress and behaviour. They have traditionally earned a living by collecting alms and by giving blessings and performances at weddings, births and festivals. Drawn from all religious groups, their devotion to Bahuchara Mata, a mother goddess comes before observation of any other faith they might follow. India's Hijra community has a recorded history of over 4,000 years.They are mentioned in ancient literature including the Ramayana and other important texts.  During the Mughal period some of them held high positions in the court and would be called upon for advice on religious matters or to give blessings during important ceremonies.

Muna is 70 years old and Hijra. She was born into a respectable Syed Muslim family, close to the Jama Mosque in Delhi.  Feeling different from an early age, she chose to leave the family and to live separately. Last week, together with my guide/ interpreter I had the privilege of spending an hour with her and hearing her story. For the first few minutes she was a little cold, sitting on the floor outside her home, rinsing out clothes and looking away from us as she spoke. As time went on she became more comfortable, spoke more freely and looked us in the eye. 

Muna is a guru and highly respected in the Hijra community. In the past she had students who would accompany her about the city, learn from her and eventually become gurus themselves, operating in different parts of Delhi. The former students still visit from time to time but do not provide any material support. She seems a solitary figure and when asked about family says that she has only superficial contact with them but wants nothing more. Due to her age she is eligible to receive a small amount of financial support from the government but has yet to do so. Despite this she describes herself as rich "I have water, food and clean clothes. What else do I need?".

This simple yet wise approach to life was displayed when during the course of the discussion we sent a small boy to bring tea from the chaiwallah. My guide asked him to bring 4 teas, one for each of us and another for the rickshaw wallah who had brought us to the meeting. Muna objected saying that we only needed 2 teas and 4 cups. She maintained that 4 teas is extravagant and chided us that we would not be able to look after our families if we "waste money on tea".

Muna is critical of what she describes as "fake Hijeras" involved in drugs, prostitution or crime. She says that they fear her when she walks in the red light areas and come to touch her feet and to give her respect and because of this she does not make trouble for them. Many of them come to her for blessings at festival times and on other important occasions. Respect is something that Muna talks about a lot. Although born a Muslim she respects all religions, is happy to give blessings to people of all faiths and will eat the food of any religious group if called upon to attend a wedding or some other ceremony. The only exception she makes is that she will not eat at the home of a family that consumes pork. Religion remains important to Muna but her devotion to Bahuchara Mata is of the greatest importance.

Towards the end of our time together she explained the reason for her initial disinterest. She is suspicious of outsiders many of whom come to her in order to make money and write or say disrespectful things about her. Some have promised help to complete an application in order to receive señor citizen's allowance but that help has not materialised.

As we stood to leave, Muna got up to give us a blessing, placing water on our foreheads and asking that we be safe and protected. I am not someone who could be described as spiritual but I felt a certain calmness from her, despite, or perhaps because of her direct way of speaking. Although there has been legislation to recognise the Hijras, abuse and discrimination is still widespread. It easy to change the law but not so easy to change attitudes and beliefs. I understood her preoccupation with respect.

Several writers say that the word "Hijra" has an Arabic source and means leave or migrate and interpret the word as being one who has left their tribe. Although Muna left her family and community many years ago she still lives close to the Jama mosque, part of a different tribe but not so very far from her previous one. I hope to meet her again.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Labourers of Old Delhi

Delhi is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of more than 24 million. A city of two parts, New Delhi boast spacious tree lined boulevards and some grandiose buildings whilst the old city has narrow streets clogged with traffic and teeming with people. Whilst New Delhi is impressive and represents modern India it is the old city that has my heart.

Lost in thought, a carpenter waiting for work
Regular readers will know of my fondness for architecture, art and fine cafes but they will also know that for me the thing that makes a city is its people and the stories that they have to tell. Amongst the millions of people in the old city's streets there are many working men - porters, rickshaw drivers, shoeshine men and day labourers including plumbers, carpenters and men who are willing and able to do "odd jobs" and are employed directly from the street.

In the early part of the day groups of porters and rickshaw drivers stand or sit in groups, waiting for the calls to come from Delhi's various bazaars and once they begin they will go on throughout the day and into the evening. But that first part of the day offers the chance for camaraderie, talking to friends, playing cards or sitting in quiet reflection waiting for the working day to commence. These men know that there will be work each day but the more casual day labourers have no guarantee of work - ever. They gather at various points in the old city, lay out the tools of their trade on the ground in front of them and wait to be chosen.

Waiting for work in Old Delhi
Shakeel (in shorts) and some of his rickshaw drivers
Friends, two porters from Rizwan's team
Over the last few days in Delhi I have been able to speak to several of these men and to learn a little about their lives. Many of them are not Delhiwales (natives of Delhi) but have come to the city from Lucknow, Bihar and elsewhere in order to earn a living. They have been easy to talk to and happy to tell me about their work. Nazim in his thirties is a porter and a Lakhnavi (native of Lucknow). He told me that he weighs 47 kilos but can carry 55 on his head. He said that porters can earn good money - several thousand rupees a week making them the aristocracy of Delhi's manual labourers, but the work is hard and tiring. Nizam is part of a group led by a Rizwan, a fellow Lakhnavi. They share living quarters, cook together and some have members of their family living in the city, others are alone. Just across the road from Rizwan's crew there is a group of rickshaw drivers under the captaincy of Shakeel, also form Lucknow and they share similar stories.

Rizwan (in the pale blue shirt) and some of his group
Rambaksh, shoeshine
Salim 35 is a rickshaw driver - not of the hand pulled variety found in Kolkata but a cycle rickshaw. He rents his vehicle for 50 rupees a day and on a good day can make up to 1,000 falling to 500-600 when there is less business, particularly when there are fewer tourists. He likes the work describing himself as his own boss despite having to work from 8am to 8pm seven days a week. I asked him about the customers and he said that they are mostly fine, the exception being some local women who bargain very hard about the fare!

Shafiq and Mustafa are two young men who practice the trade of the khan bharia. They are ear cleaners and tour the streets of the old city advertising their trade through their distinctive headgear in  which long pins, the tools of their trade are held. I met them standing outside a barber shop offering their services to customers stopping for a haircut or a shave. When I asked to photograph them Shafiq was keen, Mustafa less so until he saw his friend's picture and then changed his mind.

Rambaksh is a shoeshine as was his father, Aged 60, he was born just outside Delhi. He has been doing this work for 40 years and sits under a picture of the deity who is the patron of shoeshines. I used his service and can confirm that he is both very good at his job and charges a fair price.

Salim, cycle-rickshaw driver
Shafiq, Khan Bharia
Mustafa, Khan Bharia
One of the privileges of meeting these men was being able to see them during their quiet moments, not hurrying through the streets with heavy loads on their heads or driving their rickshaw. Many of them sit smoking beedis the local roll-ups, interact with their friends or sit quietly, lost in thought. The picture of the man smoking at the top of this post is one such moment, his face covered in the mist of exhaled smoke, perhaps wondering how long he will wait for his next job or thinking about his family elsewhere. Perhaps my favourite picture is that of the man taking a break, shoes discarded, cup of tea in hand and the already smoked cigarette thrown to the ground. His friend, pictured in the white vest against a blue background sat with an half-smoked unlit cigarette in his mouth, about to relight it or say it for later.

Before leaving Delhi I had some of these pictures printed and did my best to find the men again and to give them a copy. All were surprised and all seemed pleased but perhaps the happiest of all was Mister Khan, a painter and decorator. I had photographed him sitting on a motorbike waiting for work and sure enough he was in the same spot when I went back to find him earlier today. He will have something to share with his family tonight.

Shoes off and a cup of tea
About to relight
Mr Khan, painter and decorator

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Scenes From The City Of Joy 2 - Pay Me In Dollars, I Want To Buy A House

Kolkata is surely one of the most visually inspiring cities in the world. Its streets are filled with people working and idling, buying and selling, eating, drinking and transporting goods from one place to another. But despite the constant activity the citizens of Kolkata are almost always ready to spend a few minutes talking to a visitor who is interested in them, their lives and their story. And this is a city of stories, many of them written on the faces of the people in its streets, set against a unique architectural background. I came here for the first time last year and since then have been longing to return, to renew my acquaintance with India's former capital city, to meet more of her people and to record their stories with my camera.

Chaiwalli, Chitpur Road
If Kolkata is my one of my favourite cities, then Chitpur Road is one of my favourite streets. This long, long street is chaotic with commerce of all kinds being carried out from early morning to late at night, much of it in buildings that date back up to 200 years. It is badly dilapidated in parts but this does not seem to affect its importance and it is still possible to see crafts being carried out here that have disappeared elsewhere. One craft that is certainly not dying out is that of the chaiwallah or tea seller, offering steaming hot chai to thirsty passers by often from a roadside stall or a tiny "hole in the wall". Strolling along Chitpur I noticed an elegant woman in a green and white sari working as a chaiwalli. I wondered if the man sitting near her was her husband. When asked if this was the case she said "Him? No, he is a customer". Then she laughed. Quite a lot. He didn't. A case of mistaken identity.

The smoker, Zakaria Street
Mohammed Ishmail, businessman
Running off Chitpur, Zakaria Street is in a predominantly Muslim area and home to the magnificent Nekoda mosque. It is full of small shops selling food, paan, jewellery and clothes. It is also a rich source of interesting pictures. The people are generally open to being photographed and are genuinely curious about visitors. The man pictured smoking spotted me taking pictures, lit up a bidi and began playing up to the camera. I loved the results. He looks directly at the camera, takes a drag and blows the smoke down in a cloud around his throat whilst his yellow kurta and checked lunghi contrast  with the colourful backdrop.

Walking into an alley off the main part of the street I found myself in a small tailors owned by one Mohammed Ishmail who sat near Gulab, a much younger man working at a sewing machine. Mister Ishmail explained that his was a long established family business. When I enquired what relation the tailor was to him, he replied in English "he is my servant". The tailor looked a little surprised as must have I because Mohammed corrected himself saying "that is, he is my staff". Another case of mistaken identity I fear.

Gulab, tailor on Zakaria Street
Metal recycling near Zakaria Street
There is an enormous recycling bazaar in one of the side streets off Zakaria. This is not recycling as many people in the west would know it. This is the real thing. Metal, wood and cardboard goods are collected from various place around the city, brought here, dismantled and used to create new tools, furniture and other items. Workers sit surrounded by piles of materials using Indian ingenuity to give new life to discarded belongings. Sparks fly from welding and there is the constant sound of hammering as old nails are straightened in order to be used again. The man pictured above was winding thick lengths of wire ready to be sold and used again.

I like a joke, including a joke at my expense if the intention is not malicious.  I often meet a joker on my travels and on this occasion it was delivery man Feroz Khan of the sparkling smile and bald head who asked me to take his picture before pointing at my head and announcing in English "you and me same to same hahaha". I'm sure I don't know what he means. Cheeky chap.

Feroz Khan, my long lost and significantly younger twin
Ginger vendor, vegetable market
If Kolkata is one of my favourite cities, its 24 hour vegetable market is one of my favourite quarters. Full of life, colour and activity it is a photographer's dream. The market's management allows a small number of people to collect vegetables that have been dropped on the floor or are less than perfect but still edible and to sell them from small patches outside the main wholesale hall. These people are extremely poor and this is a way to help them earn a little extra money to support their families. One of them, an older woman selling ginger and wearing brightly coloured clothing smiled at me and wished me good morning. She seemed different to the other vendors, comfortable in her self and of her lot and I felt sure she would agree to be photographed. She did and is pictured above.

As well as the hundreds of wholesalers who have shops here, there are many small scale vendors on the periphery of the market who sell items directly to the public. I noticed one such vendor - a young woman slicing the tops off coconuts and then selling the juice to thirsty customers. I indicated that I wanted three coconuts, one each for me and my two friends and asked her how many rupees. She threw her hands up in the air and in a surprisingly husky voice replied "Rupees? Pay me in dollars, I want to buy a house". I happened to have two dollars in my pocket and was tempted to call her bluff but her expertise in slicing the tops off coconuts dissuaded me from attempts at humour. Her six year old daughter Jazmina sat behind her smiling and then poking her tongue out at the camera. I hope they get their house one day.

Pay me in dollars, I want to buy a house
Not shy at all, the vegetable market
Some of the vendors are now used to being photographed, due in large part to the tours organised by Calcutta Photo Walks.  Not only that, some of the vendors are now pretty clued up themselves about what makes a good shot or who is particularly photogenic. A herb seller called me over and told me to photograph two of the young women working for him. At first they seemed reluctant, laughing a little and feigning shyness. I was on the point of giving up when they stood beside each other and offered the camera two fabulous smiles. Perseverance works.

Less shy were what I assume to be a married couple who were brushing their teeth with liquorice roots. It is not uncommon to see men and children do this in public but never an adult woman. And I've certainly never seen a woman come close to the camera and demonstrate her teeth brushing technique  alongside the man who might have been her husband. Note I said "might" - hoping to avoid another case of mistaken identity.

Demonstration of teeth brushing, the vegetable market
But perhaps the most interesting person I met in the market was a man who makes and sells essential oils. The oils are sold in tiny bottles kept in a small, lovingly cared for wooden box which houses a series of drawers. Used for aromatherapy the mixtures include differing quantities of bark, leaves, flowers, resins, peel, seeds and other natural materials. The vendor's explanation attracted a small crowd of young people, interested to hear. In the past there were many such vendors but this is now a dying art. Less and less of these oils are being produced by traditional practitioners. He was very happy to be photographed and proudly displayed his collection for the camera.

I have been advised that when in India I should expect the unexpected. Turning into a side street off Chitpur Road I was struck by the fashion model elegance of a couple of young men stood talking to each other. Both delivery men, they seemed unaware of their good looks and were surprised that I wanted to photograph them. I had a similar moment last year in Haryana when I saw a Rajasthani farmer walking with his cattle. He would not have been out of place on the cover of Vogue.

Maker and seller of essential oils, vegetable market
Elegant young men near Chitpur Road
Dilip and Mrs Ghosh, Beadon Street
Last year I photographed a chaiwallah in Beadon Street, North Kolkata. He first caught my attention due to the brightly coloured backdrop of his stall. I then secured his permission for a portrait through a customer since he did not speak English. My volunteer interpreter told me the chaiwallah's name was Mohan Lal and that he came from Bihar. It turned out to be one of the best pictures of my first trip to India and keen to present him with a copy, I spent three days looking for him along Beadon Street before eventually finding him. He was both surprised and delighted as was his wife who after a little persuasion joined him in another picture. And something strange. Not only is he not called Mohan Lal, he is not from Bihar either. He is Dilip Ghosh, a Bengali, born in Kolkata. Despite the confusion he told me that business is good - so good that he produces a calendar every year to give to his regular customers. Fabulous. I hope to meet the Ghosh family again one day.

Still on the subject of tea, when walking through the lanes of the Bhawanipur neighbourhood I passed three men of a certain age who were sitting on a bench and enjoying a cup of chai. They waved to me and wished me "good afternoon". I can't resist a chat and they insisted I drink a cup with them. Mr. Mitra, Mr. Das and Mr. Sarkar turned out to be real gentlemen, speaking a very formal English and enquiring about my family, health and the weather. Now what was that about expecting the unexpected?  

Tea drinkers of Bhawanipur

You can see more pictures from Kolkata here.

Manjit of Calcutta Photo Walks again accompanied me at the market, leading me to some great shots, explaining how the market works, interpreting and generally making things fun. he can also advise on technique. His tours are highly recommended.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Scenes From The City Of Joy - 1, The Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata

Kolkata (Calcutta) is sometimes referred to as the city of joy. The hand pulled rickshaw is one of its iconic images. It is the only city in India that still has this mode of transport introduced during the period of British rule. Almost all of the men involved in this work come from other parts of India, predominantly Bihar, one of the poorer states. 

Dorik Jadab, rickshaw puller from Bihar
Navin Das, rickshaw puller from Bihar
I became interested in the rickshaw pullers last year when I visited Kolkata for the first time. These men are often of small stature, very lean and yet somehow manage to transport passengers of all shapes and sizes, sometimes two or three at the same time. The passengers often have enormous piles of shopping from the many bazaars and this too is loaded onto the rickshaw which then has to be maneuvered through narrow lanes and main thoroughfares most of which are clogged with trucks, cars, trams, buses and myriad other forms of transport. In recent years there have been state government proposals to outlaw this kind of work on grounds of it being inhumane. The rickshaw pullers protested that having no other qualifications or training they would not be able to find alternative work and so the ban was not enacted. Further proposals were developed to replace the rickshaws with a battery powered model. To date this has not happened.

Someone I spoke to told me that this work does not require strength but is all about balance. That person has a nice office job, so I am not sure how he would know. I wanted to know more about the lives of these men, where they come from, how they live and what they think of the work. On my more recent visit, with the help of an interpreter, I spoke to two of the rickshaw pullers, randomly encountered in Chitpur Road and Beadon Street in the northern part of the city.

Rickshaw puller with customer, North Kolkata
Navin Das is 65 years old. He told me that he has been doing this work for 33 years, ever since he came to Kolkata. Shortly after arriving from his village in Bihar he saw the rickshaws and decided it was something that he could do to earn money. His wife, two sons, three daughters and five grandchildren remain in Bihar. He works for two months at a time and then goes home for one month. His working hours are from 5am until 8pm. He does not own the rickshaw but rents it for 30 rupees per day. The rental charge includes an element for repairs for which he does not have to pay extra. Most rickshaw owners will have between 75 and 100 vehicles in their possession so quite an earner if you are receiving 30 rupees per day seven days per week for their hire. Navin can earn up to 300 rupees on a good day and about 200 rupees at less busy times. 

I was curious to know where he lives when he is in Kolkata. He pointed to the rickshaw and explained that each evening, he pulls it to the side of the road and sleeps on it and has done so since he started working. This is to maximise the value of his earnings and to be able to take back as much money as possible to his family. Whilst he was speaking I realised that in the 33 years he has been in this city, he has probably never, or very rarely, slept indoors. 

I asked him about the customers. He said that most of them are polite and respectful. There are fixed tariffs so there are no arguments over fares. The only people he does not like to take are those who are drunk who sometimes try to avoid paying at all or occasionally offer many times the fixed amount. He dislikes both. 

Dorik Jadab is 36 and is also from Bihar. He has been a rickshaw puller for ten years. He is a striking figure with a yellow headscarf and an impressive moustache. He has four children aged from 8-18 who live in his home village with their mother. He also pays the standard 30 rupees daily rental and makes a similar amount of money to Navin. He likes the work but suffers from problems with his legs due to the constant pressure of pulling heavy loads. Dorik sleeps in a wood storage facility together with several other workers. He said that he does not have to pay for this but did not explain on what basis he is there.

Tilak Mahato
Navin said that the rickshaw, if looked after properly will last for 10-15 years and that he has heard of some lasting even longer than this. I visited one of the repair workshops where three men were carrying out maintenance work to Tilak Mahato's rickshaw. Repairs normally take place overnight, outside of operational hours and the work can spill out onto the roads if the workshops are full. Repairs are usually completed within 24 hours and almost always within a few days. Tilak is 58 years old and comes from Jharkand, formerly part of Bihar and now a state in its own right. He was sitting patiently whilst the work was being done and explained that every two years he arranges for re-painting of the woodwork to help reserve it and for minor repairs to be carried out. He has been a rickshaw puller for 40 years.

Waiting for customers
Tilak waits for his rickshaw to be repaired
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